The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK | The Movie Waffler


That Cold Day in the Park review
A repressed woman becomes obsessed with a teenage boy.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Robert Altman

Starring: Sandy Dennis, Michael Burns, Susanne Benton, Luana Anders, John Garfield Jr., Michael Murphy

That Cold Day in the Park bluray

"I'm young at heart!" "50 is the new 30!" "You're only as young as you feel!" We can delude ourselves as much as we want regarding the aging process but the harsh truth is that even if you're in the improbably good shape of a Tom Cruise or Jennifer Lopez, and even if you're the envy of your peers, you're not fooling the young. To the young, anyone over 30 is over the hill. You might pride yourself on being a 40-year-old with the physique of a competitive swimmer, but all young people will see are wrinkles and sagging flesh. Well at least those of us who no longer have our youth can console ourselves with the fact that we're currently living in an age when it sucks to be young, when young people are forced to live indefinitely with their parents thanks to the western world's housing crisis and inaffordable rents. Maybe being an old fart isn't so bad.

Imagine how awful it must have been to be an old fart in the 1960s though, a time when it was great to be young. You've got to feel for all those poor bastards who spent their 17th birthday storming a beach in France under a hail of bullets, only to see their sons celebrate their 17th birthday at a rave-up surrounded by mini-skirted dollybirds, tuning in and dropping out to the groovy hit sounds of beat combos. The late '60s saw a wave of (mostly British) psycho-thrillers in which the villains were often above a certain age while their victims were youngsters. You have to wonder if the filmmakers weren't exorcising their resentment at having missed out on this glorious time to be young. It's telling that we didn't get similar movies from the US at this time, as being a young man in 1960s America was tantamount to a death sentence thanks to the Vietnam draft. I imagine a lot of young American men wished they were 40 in the '60s. The youth of America were to be pitied rather than envied, unlike the young hepcats of swinging sixties Britain.

That Cold Day in the Park review

Robert Altman's 1969 film That Cold Day in the Park is the closest the US got to emulating those mean-spirited British thrillers of the era, though it's shot and set in Vancouver. That Canadian city's constant rain, general bleakness and ex-pat community might even fool a viewer into believing they're watching a British film. Altman's film (scripted by British writer Gillian Freeman from a book by Richard Miles) deals with a very British preoccupation, that of repression, as embodied by Sandy Dennis's spinster Frances. We're never told Frances's age but Dennis was a mere 31 at time of filming. But in 1969 being 31 probably felt like being 60 today. Frances lives a drab life and it's clear the swinging '60s passed her by (if it even happened in Canada). She's surrounded by old people, as though she inherited the family of a dead spouse. An aging doctor (Edward Greenhalgh) fancies taking her as a wife, but Frances finds him repulsive.

While hosting a dinner party for her circle of old fogeys, Frances become enamoured with a teenage boy (Michael Burns) she sees sitting on a bench in the rain in the park opposite her apartment. When the guests leave she invites the boy (who remains nameless throughout) into her home, runs him a bath and offers him food. The boy refuses to speak but engages in a slapstick dance. With his mop of blond curls, the boy resembles a sinister Harpo Marx with his mute antics. The silence is filled by Frances talking incessantly in a nervous manner. After tucking the boy into a spare bed, Frances locks the door, but the boy departs through the window and visits his hippy sister Nina (Susanne Benton) and her draft-dodging American boyfriend Nick (John Garfield Jr.) on their houseboat. Turns out the boy isn't mute at all, it's simply an act, one which Nina claims he's been pulling off since childhood. Rather than steering clear of the obviously deranged Frances, the boy returns, but his motives for doing so are unclear.

That Cold Day in the Park review

Frances' motives for keeping the boy in her home are all too clear however. It's obvious she sees him as a cure for her sexual frustration, even visiting a family planning clinic to have a diaphragm fitted in preparation for some grand seduction. But just as she's repulsed by her doctor suitor's advanced age, the boy has no interest in hooking up with a woman in her thirties.

Critics at the time of That Cold Day in the Park were unreceptive to its cynicism, likely because it was so fresh they simply didn't know what to make of it. We've now become accustomed to films by the likes of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke featuring psychologically troubled women being put through the ringer (some would say tortured by the filmmakers), but in 1969 there simply weren't many characters like Frances on screen. It wasn't Altman's first film but it's the first recognisably Altman film, establishing some of his trademarks. When Altman's camera drifts away from his leading lady to eavesdrop on conversations held by background figures, 1969 audiences were likely stumped as to why a filmmaker would do such a thing. They may have surmised that Altman was highlighting the lives being lived on the lonely Frances' periphery, but now we know it's simply what Altman does. Altman's ability to quickly establish a dynamic with an economic setup is on display here, particularly in an impressive scene when the boy returns to his family home and the camera remains outside the house. We can't hear what's being spoken inside but what we observe through the windows tells us that the boy puts on a very different front for his parents than in while in the company of Frances and Nina.

That Cold Day in the Park review

With Altman now associated primarily with his ensemble dramas (to the degree that the Independent Spirit Award for Best Ensemble is named in the director's honour), it's easy to forget how many great individual lead performances his early films featured. Dennis was never better than she is here. She makes her Frances both terrifying and sympathetic, perhaps the closest a female performer has come to replicating Anthony Perkins' career defining turn as Norman Bates. There's not much to like about Frances and yet we feel a crushing sympathy for the character, and the more pathetic she acts the more difficult it becomes to watch her descent into madness.

If you have any anxiety regarding growing old, That Cold Day in the Park will prove a deeply uncomfortable experience. Through the words and actions of both the boy and Frances, we're constantly reminded of how negatively we're viewed by those younger than us. In an early attempt to impress the boy, Frances puts on a record she believes he'll enjoy, but behind her back he rolls his eyes at how out of touch she is with his generation's tastes. Later Frances delivers a monologue about how unattractive she finds the doctor, describing in detail how his old man smell turns her off. It's absolutely brutal. In his contemporary review, Roger Ebert panned the film for not being a conventional horror movie (was any mainstream critic so wrong so often? *cough* Mark Kermode *cough*), but if you're over 30 That Cold Day in the Park is as disturbing and unsettling as any explicit piece of body horror. It's as occupied with the limits of the flesh as anything by Cronenberg or Barker.

That Cold Day in the Park
 is on bluray from Arrow Video and streaming on Arrow Player.